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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 474: debated on Tuesday 22 April 2008


The Secretary of State was asked—

Roads (Permitted Vehicles)

1. Whether she plans to permit longer heavier vehicles on some roads; and if she will make a statement. (199755)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Gwyneth Dunwoody, who died last week. It is on occasions such as these that her absence will be sorely felt. Gwyneth had a passion for social justice, was incredibly knowledgeable about transport issues, as was clear from her chairmanship of the Transport Committee, and always made pertinent, if sometimes mischievous, contributions to debates. I am sure that the House will agree that Gwyneth was a truly outstanding parliamentarian and a great servant of the people. She will be sadly missed in all parts of this House.

In respect of Question 1, I am yet to receive the research report on this subject, but I have no plans to allow so-called super-lorries on UK roads.

I served on the Transport Committee under Gwyneth Dunwoody, and I think that she would appreciate the Secretary of State’s comments.

Rail freight groups estimate that every tonne of freight carried by rail saves about 80 per cent. of the carbon emissions that that freight would have generated if it had been transported by road. Why have the Government abandoned their target to increase rail freight by 80 per cent. by 2010?

The hon. Gentleman completely misunderstands the facts of the case. In fact, last year, we invested £17 million in removing 1 million lorry journeys from UK roads. We are committed to building on that success and, in the past year, we announced the single biggest package of investment in rail freight infrastructure for decades—£150 million. Rail freight has already gone up by 50 per cent. We are committed to a review, leading to a Green Paper that examines the transport challenges for the UK economy. As part of that, we will perform a specific piece of work to review the contribution that freight can make to our economic success.

Will the Minister explain to me where the fairness is in letting foreign hauliers use our roads free of charge when our hauliers go to the continent and have to pay £7 a day?

My hon. Friend makes a valid point about whether there is fair, or indeed unfair, competition on British roads. I am completely committed to ensuring a level playing field for UK hauliers and foreign hauliers. It was absolutely right that we considered the so-called vignette scheme, which proposed a daily charge for non-British lorries that use UK roads, although even the haulage industry decided that that was probably too complex and costly to implement. However, I am stepping up significantly enforcement against hauliers on road safety grounds, and have just announced additional investment of £24 million to ensure that there are no infringements of road safety rules.

May I make a plea to the Secretary of State not to allow any longer heavier vehicles on the A14 through Cambridgeshire, which has one of the worst accident records in the country, with 52 fatalities in the past 10 years alone? The latest, only three weeks ago, in which a heavy lorry killed a young single mother, was highlighted in a campaign by Cambridge News. Will the Minister undertake to prioritise all the Cambridgeshire A14 improvements so that heavier lorries can make safe passage through Cambridgeshire from the east coast ports to the midlands and the north?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that safety should be a key consideration when deciding whether road improvement schemes should go ahead. That is one of the issues that we will consider in determining whether the A14 is a priority for additional investment. We are reviewing all our road schemes and intend shortly to make an announcement on which will be priorities.

May I associate myself with my right hon. Friend’s comments about Gwyneth Dunwoody? She was a tough cookie, but she was our tough cookie. She will be very much missed.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) does not seem to realise that it is Conservative party policy to allow longer heavier lorries on the roads of Great Britain. Will my right hon. Friend think very carefully before she allows that, because they will almost certainly be taken through our rural villages causing untold damage?

My hon. Friend takes a huge interest in this subject, and I know that he has a track record of considering the case for longer heavier vehicles. He makes a pertinent point about the Conservatives’ policy, and I have a huge amount of sympathy with his points. We should be concerned about congestion and road safety and, on environmental grounds, we should think about the most effective way of moving freight around this country. That is why I have said that I would need a huge amount of persuasion to allow so-called super-lorries on British roads.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the financial implications for road maintenance of allowing longer heavier lorries on to our roads?

We have taken a long detailed look at the issues, not just in government, but through our work with the road haulage industry, to see whether it would be possible to introduce a scheme that would take account of the infrastructure and maintenance costs for British roads. The study concluded that it would not make sense to introduce such a scheme within the current framework of EU legislation; it would be too complex and costly to introduce, and the benefits would not exceed the costs.

There are alternative ways of ensuring that British hauliers do not suffer from unfair competition. I am determined to ensure that they do not, and the key to that is considering the impact on road safety. We need to ensure that there are no incentives for non-UK hauliers to break the rules. That is why enforcement is so important and it is why we have stepped up significantly the level of enforcement against hauliers who break the rules—indeed, we have doubled it in the past year.

One of the problems with the larger lorries already allowed on British roads is that they use not only the slow lane on motorways or dual carriageways, but often overtake, sometimes sandwiching smaller cars. Will the Secretary of State consider rolling out throughout the whole UK the pilot that has been introduced in one part of the country so that, as in other European countries, lorries may drive only in the slow lane?

My hon. Friend makes an absolutely excellent point. I am determined to ensure that rather than automatically jumping to the conclusion that extra capacity is needed on British roads, we think first and foremost about the best use of our existing network. That might mean bringing the hard shoulder into use, and if we decide to do so, we should think about how that extra space is used. One possibility is that we reserve it for car-share lanes, but we could also think about whether crawler lanes might be appropriate for longer heavier vehicles. We will review, motorway by motorway, the use of extra capacity to ensure that it is used to best effect.

On 19 November, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), told me that this already overdue report would be published in three months. It is now six months later, and people are starting to wonder whether someone is sitting on it. The Conservative party has not come to a view on longer heavier vehicles, but the evidence in the report might help us to do so. Will the Secretary of State at least publish the evidence, even if she cannot reach her own conclusions?

I have already made it clear that this is a complex issue. The report should be published in a matter of months, if not weeks, but it certainly should be published before the summer recess, when everyone in the House will have the opportunity to determine their view on longer heavier vehicles. I have already said that I would need a huge amount of persuasion that super-lorries are the answer to congestion on our roads, but I look forward to hearing any policy pronouncement of any kind from the Conservatives on congestion.

Rail Services (Edinburgh to North-West England)

2. If she will take steps to encourage the train operating company to improve the journey times and frequency of rail services from Edinburgh to north-west England. (199756)

Journey times will be accelerated on most trains between Edinburgh and Manchester, Warrington and Preston from the start of the December 2008 timetable. From the same date, the train operator for the Edinburgh to Manchester airport route intends to increase the number of services that it provides.

It takes almost as long to go by train from Edinburgh to Manchester as it does to go from Edinburgh to London, even though the latter journey is twice the distance. Some welcome improvements have been made, but there is a real opportunity, even with existing rolling stock—and certainly with the new rolling stock that is coming in—substantially to improve journey times between Edinburgh and north-west England, which would benefit business and leisure passengers and help to shift air and road passengers on to the railways. I urge my hon. Friend to meet the rail companies to ensure that such improvement continues, with further improvements in the timetable next year.

My hon. Friend has a long track record of campaigning on these issues. He will know that I meet all the train operating companies regularly to discuss levels of service, including the journey times between particular stations. As I have already said, the journey times that concern my hon. Friend will improve from the end of this year. We are always in the market to achieve improvements to journey times, but there is a trade-off between the number of stations that any service can serve and end-to-end journey time. Once we have struck the correct balance, I am sure that services serving my hon. Friend’s constituency will improve in the long and short term.

May I associate myself with the tributes to Gwyneth Dunwoody? Those of us in the long line of former Transport Ministers who withered under her scrutiny will remember her fondly and miss her greatly.

I thank the Minister for the news of faster train journeys, but would he not agree that most passengers actually want a more regular pattern of service and trains that are punctual and reliable?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. Under this Government, performance has improved by 10 per cent. over the past five years. We are committed also to improving rolling stock, with the introduction of 1,300 brand new carriages over the next five years. As he will be aware, today we have the youngest rolling stock of any European country.

M6 (New Junctions)

The Government’s policy on the construction of new junctions on the motorway network, including the M6, is set out in “Circular 2/07: Planning and the Strategic Road Network”, which the Department published in March 2007. The policy states that there is a general presumption against additional access to motorways and other routes of strategic national importance.

Because of the urban spread in my constituency around Preston and Blackpool, my local A roads are under tremendous traffic pressure. Lancashire county council’s solutions for relieving that involve two options—a new junction on the M6 or a new one on the M55—so will the Minister consider reviewing that guidance?

Guidance is exactly that: guidance. Ministers have some discretion to go beyond that guidance when that seems necessary. For example, if it is necessary to create a new junction on a strategic road to accommodate a growth area or an attraction, that option is open to us. I would have expected the local authorities in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency to work with the Highways Agency to come up with alternative solutions so that we did not need to create any extra junctions on any motorway. However, we analyse all situations case by case. If there is a case for creating an extra junction, I will be happy to consider it, but I would be reluctant to move from the stated policy as it is designed to ensure the free flow of traffic and maintain our high levels of road safety.

May I associate myself with the remarks about my fellow Cheshire Member, Gwyneth Dunwoody? She was a formidable lady, although, sadly, at the end of her life here I was in disagreement with her.

Will my hon. Friend the Minister think particularly about junctions at the northern end of the M6? However, before he gives that any priority, will he ensure that he cross-references his studies with his work on railways? I am convinced that significant gains could be made to the flow of freight by getting more freight on the railway on the southern side of the River Mersey. If we do that, there will be less need to change the structure of the M6.

My hon. Friend makes the particularly valid point that road and rail planning should go hand in hand. I want to get as much freight on to the railways as possible. We have to assume that roads will continue to carry the vast majority of freight in the long term. However, with that in mind, it is incumbent on local authorities and the Highways Agency to ensure that our infrastructure is fit for purpose.

The Minister will know that many of my constituents travelling south from Shropshire use either the M6 or the M6 toll road. Will he give my constituents an update on the extension of the M6 toll road connected to the M54 and, most importantly, give a commitment to them and me today that no toll will be introduced on the M54?

I can confirm that there are no plans to impose a toll on the M56.[Official Report, 29 April 2008, Vol. 475, c. 4MC.] I can also tell the hon. Gentleman that the plans to extend the toll road northwards are no longer going to be progressed. However, the whole policy on the strategic road network, and the question of how we make the most effective use of its capacity, are the subject of a study being undertaken by the Department. That study will consider not only road pricing, but active traffic management, which has been such a success on the M42.

Can the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and I both now take it that the ridiculous idea of building a motorway parallel to the M6 through Staffordshire has been abandoned once and for all?

Local Transport Plans

4. What guidance her Department has issued to local authorities on the development of local transport services through local transport plans. (199758)

The Department for Transport issued guidance to local authorities about local transport plans in December 2004. It also issued advice in 2007 about reviewing progress on delivery of transport plans.

I thank the Minister for her response. May I say, on behalf of the people I represent, that they are very glad that, at long last, they are going to get back some local control over public transport services? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Conservatives oppose these plans simply because they would still rather put private profit before public services?

My hon. Friend is quite right to express amazement at the fact that the Conservatives decided to vote against the Local Transport Bill on Second Reading. All Labour Members appreciate the need to improve our bus services, to increase the integration of public transport and to improve community transport. It is beyond belief that the Conservatives do not support those principles. I also believe that they are completely out of step with Conservative local councillors whom I meet around the country, who say that this is exactly—

Order. Perhaps we can have ministerial answers now. We can talk about ministerial responsibility.

May I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to Gwyneth Dunwoody? A corner of this Chamber will be for ever Gwyneth’s.

I invite the Minister to explain the role of regional development agencies in strategic transport planning, in particular for roads such as the A64 between York and Scarborough that have a strategic role but are inherently unsafe. Between us, we need to find the money to improve that road.

The regional transport board has responsibility for prioritising the regional funding allocation and it decides the priority for allocations to roads such as that mentioned by the hon. Lady. In the proposals on the sub-national review, transport comes under the auspices of the regional development agencies, and the agencies and the regional assemblies are responding to those proposals and determining how they would like such strategic transport issues to work. The consultation on that closes in June, and the hon. Lady will no doubt wish to respond to it herself.

Does the Minister agree that it is important that local authorities retain a role in planning local transport services to ensure that buses cannot be removed or rerouted because they are deemed to be unprofitable, regardless of their value to local residents?

My hon. Friend is quite right. That was why the Government introduced local transport plans—for which, incidentally, funding has doubled since 2001—which made local authorities responsible for taking an integrated approach on local transport. The Local Transport Bill, which is now going through Parliament, will give local authorities more powers to introduce quality partnership schemes and quality contracts, which have been widely welcomed by local authorities in all parts of the country, and, incidentally, by all political parties. During our discussions on the Bill, I hope that we will be able to persuade Conservative Front Benchers at last to support these proposals.

Following the opening of the new railway line between Kettering and Corby later this year, there will be a danger that the bus service operating between the two towns will be lost. It provides an important service for local people, particularly to the local hospital. Will the Minister encourage, through her departmental guidance, the relevant local authorities to retain this important bus service when the rail link is established?

We ask local authorities, when framing their local transport plans, to look into how to integrate their transport services. The Local Transport Bill will give local authorities greater powers over bus services, so the hon. Gentleman might like to talk to his local authority—and, perhaps, his Conservative councillors—about what plans they might like to bring in under the Bill and then perhaps persuade Front Benchers to support them.

May I pay my tribute to Gwyneth Dunwoody, who will be sadly missed by all who knew her and who worked for her?

Does the Minister agree that the best way to achieve successful local transport plans is to ensure that transport authorities continue to be made up of democratically elected and accountable local representatives?

I know that my hon. Friend will be feeling very deeply the departing of Mrs. Dunwoody? I know from my most recent appearance before the Transport Committee that he was with her when she was conducting its inquiry into blue badges.

On having elected people on passenger transport authorities and the future integrated transport authorities, it is true that we want to give local areas the right to co-opt other members—for example, representatives of passenger groups—on to those authorities, if it is felt that that would be helpful. However, we have said very firmly that the majority of voting members must be elected councillors. I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend.

I, too, would like to pay tribute to Gwyneth Dunwoody. Indeed, it seems very strange to be here at Transport questions without her watchful eye over proceedings.

Will the Minister tell us what guidance has been issued on light rail, with particular reference to light rail in Merseyside?

Recent guidance has been issued—I understand that it is available on the Department’s website—setting out the Department’s exact views on light rail schemes and how to take their construction forward.

Concessionary Bus Travel

From 1 April—chop, chop—the Government implemented the new statutory minimum entitlement to concessionary travel so that up to 11 million older people and eligible disabled people could travel free at off-peak times on buses in any part of England, not just in the area where they live.

Notwithstanding the millions of pounds that the Minister boasts of having distributed, is she aware of the disaster being visited on communities, particularly those on the western edges of counties, as county councils attempt to balance the interests of the council charge payer with the traveller and reduce the service in order to be able to afford concessionary fares? Does she realise that it is a fat lot of use having a free bus pass if there is no bus to travel on as a result? Does she know that although 11 million passes have been issued, there are hardly any buses that can process them?

The additional allocation in the hon. Gentleman’s area for 2008-09 was £493,000, which represents a 48 per cent. increase—48 per cent.—over the spending in 2006-07. I would hope that the hon. Gentleman welcomes a scheme introduced by a Labour Government to help older people in this country and to save them considerable amounts. I hope that he will encourage people in his local area to take it up.

As for the hon. Gentleman’s point about bus services, I urge him to ask local councillors what they feel about the Local Transport Bill. I shall be very surprised if they are not supporting our plans for quality partnership schemes and quality contracts.

I agree. Certainly everyone I have met supports our proposals. If the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) has that conversation with local councillors, I suggest that he then discuss with Conservative Front Benchers whether they will support them as well.

As a former Transport Minister, I, too, pay tribute to Gwyneth Dunwoody. She was a great parliamentarian.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and her colleagues on the introduction this month of the English national concessionary travel scheme. In Scotland, we have had such a scheme for some years, and it has given a tremendous boost to elderly people in particular. However, some elderly people living close to the English border with Wales and Scotland do not enjoy as much free travel as we should like. Is it possible that in due course concessionary travel can be extended throughout Great Britain?

It is refreshing to hear my right hon. Friend welcome and celebrate the proposals for older people, rather than adopting the mealy-mouthed approach of the Conservative party. As he might know, we have had some discussions about the issue of cross-border travel, and many services can already cross county borders. We want to ensure that the English scheme settles down before looking further, but although that has been a priority, it does not rule out further discussions in the future.

There is no help for buses trying to provide services to and from the Isle of Wight. What are the Government doing to improve the position?

What the Government are doing to improve bus services is introducing the Local Transport Bill, which gives local authorities more powers to improve services and work with operators in their areas. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman supports that direction of travel, as it were. I urge him, too, to talk to local Conservative councillors about their views, and then talk to his party’s Front Benchers.

I welcome the Minister’s remarks about cross-border travel. What discussions are taking place with the Welsh Assembly Government to enable my constituents to travel freely on buses between Wales and England, and within what time scale will we see that benefit?

As I explained earlier, if buses are simply to cross the border, agreements can be made between the local authorities concerned. We wanted to ensure that the system in England was implemented from 1 April and that all the passes were issued before proceeding to further discussions. There are, of course, enormous financial implications for the extension of the scheme to Wales and Scotland, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand that we must take them very seriously.

May I add my voice to the tributes paid to Gwyneth Dunwoody? She was a great friend of my party and its leader, and a great friend to the people of Northern Ireland, where she was held in high esteem.

How does the Minister expect the concessionary travel schemes across the United Kingdom to interlock in the coming years, and what is her estimate of the increase in the number of people availing themselves of the schemes?

As I have explained, our first priority was to ensure that the English scheme was implemented and the cards sent out. The option remains for us to extend the scheme more widely, but we need to consider issues such as financial implications. The extension of the scheme has not been ruled out, but we must take those issues into account.

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate London and its Mayor on the comprehensive bus pass and the very efficient bus service in the capital? There is currently a proposal before the capital to get rid of the modern single-decker buses that have been provided and to replace them with the old Routemaster. Has my right hon. Friend done a cost-benefit analysis of the use of the Routemaster, and is that bus appropriate in the 21st century for a capital city such as London?

My hon. Friend is right to congratulate the Mayor of London on the freedom pass; it has been immensely valuable to the residents of London. What they ought to be worried about to start with is the fact that the Conservative Front Bench has said that if—[Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Now we can hear the authentic voice of the Conservative Front Bench. National free bus travel was supposed to start on 1 April. Amidst all the contributions today, the Minister is forgetting that because of its botched introduction hundreds of thousands of pensioners were unable to travel as the smartcards and temporary passes the Government had promised them were not available. Why did the Government so badly botch the introduction of national concessionary travel, and how many hundreds of thousands of pensioners were prevented from travelling—and how many are still prevented from travelling?

Once again the Conservative Front Bench is attacking local authorities who actually have done quite a lot of—[Interruption.] Obviously, the hon. Gentleman does not understand how passes are distributed. That was done by local authorities. The Government purchased 4 million temporary passes in case local authorities got into difficulties, because distributing more than 11 million passes over the course of a year was a huge undertaking. The authorities should be congratulated on the work that they did, instead of once again being beaten over the head, which is what the Opposition Front Bench wants to do. About 99 per cent. of passes have been distributed. Some people who applied later—they might not have been aware of the introduction of the free pass—have experienced a delay. However, the Department for Transport bought 4 million temporary passes, which can be used with people’s existing passes up until September of this year. I congratulate the local authorities and others who worked very hard to get these passes distributed, and the Conservative Front Bench should join me in that.

Road Congestion

We have given local authorities new powers and resources to tackle congestion. Additional resources are available through the transport innovation fund and the congestion performance fund.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that her Department urgently holds talks with Stoke-on-Trent city council about the damaging impacts on road congestion and the worrying increased risks to pedestrians and other road users if the city council’s misguided and misinformed decision to close Trentham high school and Longton high school goes ahead?

I am afraid that I am not familiar with the school closures proposed in my hon. Friend’s constituency, although I know he has been a great champion for his constituents. Local councils should think seriously about congestion across their boroughs and make sensible local decisions that support tackling that. I would be happy to look into the case my hon. Friend raises, and to meet him to talk about it.

May I, as a Cheshire MP, pay my tribute to Gwyneth Dunwoody? She was a robustly independent socialist, and she did great credit to this House over many years.

Macclesfield in east Cheshire looks to Stoke-on-Trent, part of which is represented by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello), with great envy. Huge sums of money—multi-millions of pounds—have been spent on the A50 and the A500. Will the Secretary of State ensure that there is a fairer distribution of funds to other areas that need the sort of road improvement that has taken place in Stoke-on-Trent? Macclesfield deserves a better deal.

I certainly believe in devolution; all my political life I have argued that local authorities and regions should have more funds at their disposal and more authority about how they use those resources. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to learn that we have introduced the regional funding allocation, which gives local regions the power to determine what their own priorities are. I suggest that he makes the case to them that they should be spending the money in Macclesfield.

Does the Secretary of State agree that this approach should involve more park and ride schemes? If she does, does she also agree about the importance of discussion and agreement between her Department and the Department for Communities and Local Government, which often makes decisions on planning applications, to ensure that park and ride schemes, particularly those that can make a major contribution to reducing congestion, such as schemes on the A449 in my constituency, go ahead with all the normal safeguards as quickly as possible?

I agree with the point that my hon. Friend is making. Park and ride schemes can make a tremendous contribution to tackling congestion. In fact, local authorities should be free to determine how they tackle congestion in their local areas, and how they get people out of their cars and on to buses. I know that the local authorities are welcoming the powers that we are giving them to have more say over how buses are regulated. I hope that the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) will take that into account when she explains to local authorities up and down the country why the Conservatives voted against the Local Transport Bill just last month.

The highly successful and expanding port of Dover is putting 100 miles of lorries a day on to Kent’s road network. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to discuss with Kent county council measures to tackle the problems of Operation Stack and its knock-on effect on the wider road system?

I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), who deals with these issues, is having lots of discussions, including some with Kent county council, about how to take container lorries off British roads and encourage freight on to the rail network. It is right that we examine these matters on a scheme-by-scheme basis across the country, and that we consider how we can move freight around in the most efficient way possible and how we can do that with the minimum impact on the environment. That is why last year we invested the single biggest sum for a generation—£150 million—in encouraging rail freight infrastructure and why, in the rail White Paper, we committed ourselves to investing another £200 million in the strategic freight network. Those investments will provide real benefits to the freight industry, and I hope that they will keep the lid on road container traffic and encourage more vehicles off the roads and on to rail.

Speed Cameras/Vehicle-activated Signs

8. What assessment she has made of the comparative cost-effectiveness, in terms of improving road safety, of speed cameras and vehicle-activated signs. (199762)

No comparative assessment has been made. Safety cameras and vehicle-activated signs are used to tackle different road safety problems. Safety cameras are effective in tackling excessive speed—speeds over the posted speed limit. Vehicle-activated signs are generally used to tackle inappropriate speed, and have proven particularly effective when used to warn drivers of approaching hazards on rural roads.

The cost of a speed camera, including installation, is about £50,000, whereas the cost of a vehicle-activated sign is only £1,000. The Department for Transport’s own figures say that 2.2 accidents are estimated to be prevented by a speed camera in one year, whereas vehicle-activated signs are estimated to prevent 3.1 accidents. Does the Minister therefore agree that the Department’s own figures show that not only are vehicle-activated signs more effective in improving road safety, but they are very much better value for money? Will he consider introducing a policy that vehicle-activated signs should be given preference over speed cameras wherever the location is appropriate?

The decision about which type of camera to deploy and where is very much a matter for local road safety partnerships, which receive £110 million extra a year to do that. I am not sure where the hon. Lady found her figures. The four-year independent evaluation report on the 4,100 speed camera sites, published in 2005, recorded a 42 per cent. reduction in serious crashes a year, meaning 100 fewer deaths and 1,600 fewer seriously injured—as opposed to the two or three that she mentions. Our figures are at variance and I would be happy to discuss them with her, because I know that the objective for the whole House is to reduce the numbers needlessly killed or seriously injured on our roads.

The Minister will know that nationally many road safety cameras are subject to vandalism, presumably by motorists who have been caught by them. Does the Minister agree that people who are found guilty of such crimes should be severely punished?

It is easy to answer that question by simply saying yes. Speed cameras are delivering road safety targets that we all want to see. Some 3,000-plus people die and nearly 30,000 are seriously injured every year on our roads. Speed cameras are demonstrably helping to reduce those figures, and anybody who is selfish enough to damage the cameras because they have been careless enough to have been caught breaking the rules should feel the full weight of the law.

Topical Questions

Free off-peak concessionary bus travel throughout England was introduced on 1 April, enabling 11 million older and disabled people in England to use buses anywhere across the country. I also announced that Passenger Focus would be the first national bus passenger champion, speaking up on behalf of millions of bus users.

Today I laid a written ministerial statement announcing a review of the framework of economic regulation of the UK airport system. The review will be advised by a panel of independent experts led by Professor Martin Cave.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Highways Agency is refusing to increase the capacity of junction 21 of the M5 in my constituency until more local jobs have been created to reduce the number of people who commute into Bristol each day? The regional spatial strategy, which would have achieved exactly that, has just been amended by Government-appointed planners to allow even more houses to be built without the necessary local jobs. The result is deadlock and misery for my constituents, stuck in the resulting appalling jams. Will she therefore liaise urgently with her colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that the Government’s left hand knows what their right hand is doing?

It is important not only that we have the housing that future generations will desperately need, but that we have the appropriate transport infrastructure to support that housing growth. In fact, my Department has been working closely with the Department for Communities and Local Government to support, for example, new growth points, where we have invested £4 billion to support new housing developments. Of course I am happy to look into the specific case that the hon. Gentleman cites, but he can rest assured that the Government work to provide both the appropriate housing and the appropriate infrastructure.

T2. The production of some forms of biofuels is causing increases in global food prices and does not represent the cheapest way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Can my right hon. Friend tell us when the Government intend to introduce the sustainability standards for biofuels? Does she accept that the use of recycled cooking oils to manufacture biodiesel is a 100 per cent. recyclable form of biofuel that is encouraging small businesses in different parts of the country? Will she ensure that that form of biofuel is supported in any future policy change? (199780)

I know how concerned my hon. Friend is about these issues and he is right to point to the global impact of rising food prices. I am sure that he will appreciate that biofuels account for only some 2 per cent. of total food production and that other international factors are involved, such as recent droughts and an increasing demand for meat in preference to crops. Our system for supporting biofuel production in the UK must be sustainable. That is why we have introduced a world class sustainability reporting mechanism and the renewable transport fuels obligation at the cautious level of 2.5 per cent. It is why we are determined not to go beyond the level of 5 per cent. in 2010 without making sure that there are mandatory sustainability standards in place. My hon. Friend will know, too, that I have commissioned an independent study led by Professor Gallagher of the Renewable Fuels Agency to consider all the indirect effects of biofuel production.

I start by joining the hundreds of people inside and outside the House who have paid tribute to Gwyneth Dunwoody. She was a great parliamentarian. We will not only miss her today; I am sure that the House will miss her for many years to come. She was hugely influential on all transport matters and her outspoken approach was a real asset not only to the House but to the wider transport community, for which she did so much hugely valuable work.

My question for the Secretary of State is: if the Competition Commission recommends the break-up of BAA’s monopoly over airports in the south-east, will she promise to implement that recommendation?

I think that the hon. Lady will realise that the Government have a history of respecting the conclusions of the independent Competition Commission. It is of course the expert in that matter and it is right that it should have the time and space to consider the issues carefully. It is right, too, that we should think in government about how to raise standards of service for passengers. That is why this morning I commissioned a review led by an independent professor, Professor Martin Cave, to advise the Government on what the appropriate economic regulatory regime ought to be for the future.

We still cannot get a straight answer from the Government on the future of the monopoly enjoyed by their friends at BAA. Anyone who has been through the notorious Heathrow hassle or experienced the T5 debacle knows that BAA too often gives a dismal standard of service to its customers, yet the regulator recently awarded it with double-digit price increases. Is it not time to call time on the BAA monopoly on airports in the south-east, toughen up a toothless regulatory regime and put the interests of passengers first?

I suggest that the hon. Lady actually reads the Competition Commission’s report. I spent several hours this morning going through the 160-odd pages of the report. Surely she will have noticed that it says clearly on page 12:

“Lack of capacity, particularly runway capacity, at the south-east airports…appears to be a main reason for the current poor standards of service at the airports and lack of resilience at times of disruption.”

Surely it is now time for the hon. Lady, rather than criticising the Government, to wake up to the facts of the situation and reconsider her opposition to expansion at Heathrow subject to the local environmental conditions—a policy that has everything to do with short-term political opportunism and nothing to do with Britain’s long-term prosperity.

T5. The Secretary of State is very aware of the problems around the western bypass in Gateshead. Can she give me an update on progress on that matter? (199783)

My hon. Friend has campaigned on that issue for a long time. I share his concern that we have to see some progress on that project. However, he knows that widening that section of the A1 is likely to be complex and costly and will take time to deliver. However, the Highways Agency is aware of my concern to make progress. I am happy to discuss the matter with my hon. Friend in the near future. He will also know that the Highways Agency is investigating the possibility in the meantime of low-cost measures to improve the operation of the A1, including options for improving accident and incident management and speeding up the clearance of accidents.

T3. The Secretary of State has required First Great Western to implement a remedial plan; otherwise its franchise will be taken away. Will she tell me, on behalf of the long-suffering passengers from Oxford and Abingdon and throughout the region, when that remedial plan will be evaluated? When can we expect to see significant improvements or a change of franchisee? (199781)

The remedial plan, which has now been contractualised in the First Great Western franchise, will be monitored on an ongoing basis. As far as the latter part of the hon. Gentleman’s question is concerned, I expect and hope that we will see significant improvements in First Great Western’s performance in the next few months.

T6. The boiler suits are lined up, the paintbrushes are ready, the paint pots are waiting. Will my hon. Friend join me at Longton railway bridge to do Network Rail’s job for it, or does he have some good news for me at last? It may well be that following the next reshuffle, I will have some spare time on my hands, in which case I would be more than happy to take up my hon. Friend’s offer. In the meantime, however, I am more than happy once again to write to Network Rail to ask it whether it will prioritise that job. I have to point out that as a Minister, I cannot instruct Network Rail to do so, but I can ask whether it has any plans to do so. (199785)

On behalf of my Liberal Democrat colleagues, may I, too, say how sad we were to learn of Gwyneth Dunwoody’s death? She was an independent spirit, and we on these Benches had a lot of time for her.

On aviation—I note in passing that the Tory Members of the Transport Committee voted against breaking up BAA—the Minister will be aware that the average carbon emissions from air travel per passenger mile are considerably higher than they are by rail. Yet a parliamentary answer that I received yesterday showed that the cost of travelling by air had decreased by 50 per cent. over the past 10 years, whereas the cost of travelling by rail had increased by 6 per cent. What will the Secretary of State do to try to ensure that the cost of travelling bears more relation to the carbon emissions?

I know how deeply the hon. Gentleman cares about carbon emissions and the difference in the amount of carbon emitted by different means of travel. I know, too, that he is in favour of high-speed rail, but the fact of the matter is that we cannot jump to conclusions on any of these issues. The speed of the railway service is intimately connected with the amount of carbon produced. A high-speed rail line, for example, emits approximately double the carbon of a lower-speed rail service. We are going to need in this country both aviation, which will serve the interests not just of London but of the wider UK economy, and a decent rail service, at prices that people can afford.

I looked at rail fares recently and discovered that 80 per cent. of journeys between London and Manchester could be taken at a price that I think was less than £35. There is clearly a huge difference between turning up and asking for a premium rate fare and booking in advance. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to keep these things in perspective and recognise the fact that it is this Government who are taking the tough decisions on aviation and who are determined to make the necessary investment in rail too.

T7. My right hon. Friend will know that the extension of the highly successful, reliable and climate-friendly Midland Metro from Birmingham to Brierly Hill in the black country is long overdue. I believe that we are due a ministerial visit next month to look at the route. My sons have gone from toddlers to teenagers waiting for this project. Will the Minister give the go-ahead before they make me a grandmother? (199786)

Naturally, I am beside myself with excitement about my visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency, which I believe is in approximately six weeks. I am counting the days. She will know that the regional funding allocation process through which the extension would go has not at this point prioritised the extension of the Metro. Those involved are looking at these issues on each occasion that they examine the priorities, and I very much look forward to learning more about the extension when I come to visit her constituency.

T4. Bus services in rural areas are more expensive to run. Sometimes the buses are not necessarily full, but they are very important services. Do the Government take into account the fact that they are more expensive to run when calculating the grants that they give, for example for subsidised bus passes? The situation is important in my constituency in Tewkesbury, where some services are being cut because the councils claim that they are not getting enough money to run them. (199782)

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that this Government introduced the rural bus subsidy grant, which has played an important part in sustaining rural bus services. Again I must return to the Local Transport Bill, which will give local councils greater powers to work with operators to run services. It will also introduce improvements in community transport, and that is particularly relevant to rural areas. I therefore urge the hon. Gentleman to encourage his Front-Bench colleagues to support the Bill as, until now, they have failed to do so.

T8. The Department for Transport estimates that there are around 1.2 million vehicles without a valid MOT certificate. Is it not time to bring in a system of reminders for people, so that we can ensure that we improve the quality of vehicles on our roads? (199787)

My hon. Friend raises a very relevant point. On top of the 1 million vehicles without an MOT certificate, I understand that the certificates for some 4 million vehicles are renewed up to four weeks after they should be. A problem clearly exists, therefore, although owners can use a peel-off part of the certificate to remind themselves about when renewal falls due. Many garages and MOT testers send out renewal reminders, but we have asked the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to look at other methods that we can use. Obviously, as there are 31 million vehicles in this country, it would be very expensive to send out reminders to all owners, but we are looking for better ways to remind people about when their MOT is due.

A shop steward in the PCS union has sent me an e-mail to inform me that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s own figures show that coastguards saved 48,000 lives last year. That equates to many billions of pounds saved for the economy, so what are the Government doing to help resolve the current dispute with our coastguards?

The dispute with the coastguards is obviously regrettable. Safety is of paramount importance, and the Government are doing everything possible to make sure that emergency services are provided while MCA members take strike action. They believe that that is the best way to prosecute their pay claim, but we consider that the settlement that they received last year and this year was appropriate and in line with Government recommendations. We are offering talks on a multi-year pay deal for the future, but at present we are making sure that the contingency plans needed for the safety of mariners are in place.

The case for the reopening of the Woodhead line across the Pennines has been made many times in this Chamber, as it would enhance the north’s economic development. Will my hon. Friend the Minister of State update the House on the discussions between the Government and representatives of the National Grid and Network Rail about the preservation of the third Woodhead tunnel—called the “53 tunnel” because it was built in 1953—for future use?

As promised, I met representatives of both Network Rail and National Grid last Friday. We discussed the issues arising from the Adjournment debate to which my hon. Friend and many other hon. Members contributed. Both companies agreed to study the feasibility of ensuring, when the Woodhead tunnels are sealed, that access for the purposes of ongoing inspection is retained. In addition, I discussed Network Rail’s utilisation strategy for the future use of the rail network by both freight and passenger services. The company agreed to take into account any representations about the future use of the Woodhead tunnel for freight.